Colin Powell, the outgoing US secretary of state, was given his marching orders after telling President George W Bush that he wanted greater power to confront Israel over the stalled Middle East peace process.
Although Mr Powell’s departure was announced on November 15, his letter of resignation was dated November 11, the day he had a meeting with Mr Bush.
According to White House officials, at the meeting Mr Powell was not asked to stay on and gave no hints that he would do so. Briefing reporters later, he referred to “fulsome discussions” – diplomatic code for disagreements.
“The clincher came over the Mid-East peace process,” said a recently-retired state department official.
“Powell thought he could use the credit he had banked as the president’s ‘good cop’ in foreign policy to rein in Ariel Sharon [Israel’s prime minister] and get the peace process going. He was wrong.”
Bob Woodward, the veteran Washington reporter who was granted unprecedented access to the first Bush administration for his books Bush At War and Plan Of Attack, said last week that Mr Powell had been “dreaming” if he thought that he could stay on.
Vice-president Dick Cheney and his fellow hardliner, John Bolton, an under-secretary of state to Mr Powell, are both understood to have lobbied Mr Bush to replace him.
They wanted to make Iran’s alleged nuclear bomb aspirations and support for Islamic terror groups the foreign policy priority for the new administration and believed that Mr Powell would back away from a confrontational approach.
The two are frustrated that Britain, France and Germany are still seeking a diplomatic deal with Teheran rather than backing an immediate UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran and threatening sanctions.
Mr Powell’s final pitch to remain in office for at least another year was made during Tony Blair’s visit to Washington nine days ago, The Telegraph has learned. Earlier indications had been that he intended to step down after enduring four years of clashes with the office of Mr Cheney and the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld.
Friends of Mr Powell later briefed journalists that he had changed his mind because he saw the chance of progress on the peace process and wanted to see through the Iraqi elections.
Mr Powell is to be replaced by Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser and close confidante of Mr Bush.
Mr Bolton’s predicted promotion as her deputy is a further signal that the president wants to conduct foreign policy without the “moderating” influence and popular public face of Mr Powell.
Prominent neo-conservatives in Washington make no secret of their desire for regime change in Teheran, although few believe that a full-scale military operation is a viable strategy.
Instead, the emphasis is on establishing economic sanctions as a means to squeeze the ruling mullahs. There is also the option that the US may tacitly back Israeli air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The overhaul of the CIA under its new director, Porter Goss, a recent Bush appointee, is also intended to remove critics of America’s foreign policy.